Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Week Four: Hooked on Windhoek: Introduction to Namibia

by Jeremiah Chamberlin & Hannah Johnson

At the beginning of the week, the CGEE group had the opportunity to engage with students from the University of Namibia (UNAM) in an informal discussion. This became an invaluable experience; for many of us, it was the first time we were able to interact with Namibian peers and dually analyze some the experiences that have shaped our lives as students. The topics of discussion ranged from our favorite hobbies and involvement in campus life, to deeper issues such as racism and discrimination on campus.

One of the topics that emerged from conversation are the barriers to accessing education at the collegiate level. For many of us at CGEE, we echoed the idea that financial considerations present the largest challenge in the United States, compounded by the realities of institutional racism and economically diverse backgrounds. From the perspective of the UNAM students, race did not play as important a role in college choice and acceptance rate. However, they did emphasize the role of the education system in Namibia, especially concerning regions outside of Windhoek. It was surprising to learn that the quality of teachers and curriculums is low in many regions, and this has impacted the demographics of students that attend college. For example, particularly in the Northern regions, teachers are underpaid and schools are understaffed. From both the US and Namibian perspectives, we were surprised on how many similarities we were able to draw between education systems.

On Tuesday, our group spilt into subgroups to explore the various facets that Katutura, a former black township in Windhoek, has to offer. We received itineraries for the day and were accompanied by guides from Young Achievers, a local youth organization. On this ‘Katutura Quest,’ we visited a diversity of both government and non-government organizations and programs that are involved in the community. One such program is the Katutura Community Arts Center, which is open to the public. Within the arts center is the College of the Arts (COTA).

During our tour, we had the opportunity to sit in on a staff/student meeting where the changing financial policies of the college were discussed. Many of the challenges that small colleges face while moving forward are connected to some of the topics we discussed with the UNAM students on Monday regarding education. Among the concerns is the increasing cost of tuition as a government-subsidized college, which has put pressure on many students of low-income backgrounds.

In our interview with Joost Van de Port, head of the Media Department at COTA, he explained that the college and students need be able to gain more agency to receive national recognition from the state. Currently, COTA is not listed under the Ministry of Education, and therefore, not seen as a priority. As Van de Port explains, the college is in the process of gaining status to be listed under the Ministry of Education, which allows greater funding for the college, particularly from the National Arts Council. Van de Port claims that media literacy, particularly under the department of the Media, Arts, and Technology, is crucial for all Namibians to learn. 

Those of us with internships began officially on Wednesday, with a full day at our individual organizations. These included The Namibian Chamber of Commerce, Planned Parenthood, Namibian Women’s Health Network, Friendly Haven (for victims of domestic violence), along with a number of others. Because many of these organizations work with vulnerable populations, these first few days of interning were emotional for some individuals. For a few of us this meant hearing heartbreaking stories of domestic abuse; for others, it means coming face to face with the inadequate funding and understaffing of specific educational institutions. Naturally, it’s not all negative; there are organizations like Sister Namibia which are doing incredible work to empower Namibian women in surprising ways, while simultaneously challenging gender stereotypes. Collectively, these shared experiences are giving us a fuller, more complex understanding of the Namibian story.

One of the highlights of this week would have to be Thursday’s ‘Community Day’, held at the Elisenheim Guest Farm. While we may have complained about waking up early, the day became an insightful opportunity to reflect on our experiences. The day also gave us the chance to get closer to those we are sharing our experiences with, especially other members of the CGEE staff (specifically Evelyn, Jenobie, Sarah, and Passat). Initially playing games like ‘Seven’ (learned from our Katatura tour guides), the day began on a relaxed, informal note. We shared simple secrets about ourselves, like facts about our families or our favorite memories. It was a welcome reprieve from the emotionally intense schedule of Johannesburg. 

Elisenheim Guest Farm on Community Day.
ables are set up for our various identity stations.
However, as the activities progressed, the subject matter became much more personal. Entering ‘identity stations’, individuals were asked to share in small groups their personal feelings on aspects of their identity, such as race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, class, and nationality. Many of us were reduced to tears in the process of hearing each other’s deeply held thoughts and emotions, yet the overall sentiment was one of openness and acceptance. 

Friday marked the first day of actual class: Race and Resistance in Southern Africa and the US taught by Albertina. This included a field trip to the Owela Museum, which records the lifestyles, cultures and practices of Namibia’s indigenous tribes. The museum also addresses some of the injustices faced by these groups, like those suffered by the San people. Dubbed ‘Bushmen’ by early German colonizers, members of the San were considered evidence of the ‘missing link’ theory connecting apes and humans. In an effort to record data on what they considered an evolutionarily incomplete group, German ‘scientists’ made molds and casts of San people’s faces and body parts. Skewed information was then published, propagating racist narratives of white supremacy which are sadly still influential even today.

Molds of actual San people created for the Germans'
racist interpretation of the 'missing link' theory.
Despite the tragic reality of colonization and discrimination, the Owela museum remains an important place for appreciating Namibian history and heritage. Named after a board game common among many Namibian tribes (similar to Mancala), Owela stands as both a tangible and symbolic representation of the larger Namibian identity. The shared story of the nation is as beautifully haunting as the unique communal experiences which are braided into its past. As we acclimate ourselves to this new environment, we begin our journey backwards in time to the tumultuous formative age of disillusionment.

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